A pair of eyesPrisons have always fascinated me, perhaps because one only hears about what goes inside its high walls, but can’t really tell how much truth there is to it.
Prisons have always fascinated me, perhaps because one only hears about what goes inside its high walls, but can’t really tell how much truth there is to it.
When I was young, I had to pass by the Nakkhu Jail to get to my Sani-ama’s house in Bungmati. While walking through the small galli adjacent to the jail’s walls—which has now expanded into a pitched road—I often mulled over the stories of the criminals, who I heard had dug a tunnel to escape the prison.
By the time I entered my adolescence, I had already learned that the jail wasn’t only a place for criminals; it was also a place for revolutionaries who wanted to change the society. And to a teenager, the heroic stories of these rebels who risked their lives for the greater good had a deep impact.
I secretly looked up to these prisoners and appreciated their efforts.
One day, when I was offered an opportunity to visit the prison by student-politicians, I could not say no. The event had something to do with interacting with the imprisoned revolutionaries on the occasion of Dashain. I was going to see what a prison looks like. I would be able to see revolutionaries that I quietly adored, and then I had been allowed to perform a couple of songs at the event.
It was only when I reached the ground outside the jail that I started getting nervous. There were a couple of trees under which we took shade while the leaders approached the gate-keepers. After 10-minutes of persuasion, they finally let the revolutionaries out for a limited period of time. As the political prisoners stepped outside, I observed their faces closely. Their eyes did not disappoint me for they gleamed of dignity and pride.
I don’t remember the names of any of the 15 prisoners that we interacted with, neither do I remember much of the conversations we had. What I do clearly remember is the moment that the announcer called me up on the front-stage for my performance.
There was no music to back me up, but I could tell they were paying attention to the sincerity with which I had composed the song. By the time I reached the last stanza, I looked around for approval from my audience, especially those for whom I was performing. For most part I was happy. I was content with how the prisoners were soaking in the performance. But, when my eyes met those of one very young prisoner, I stumbled a little. For a second, it felt like I lost my composure. He was looking right at me, but it felt like he was also looking right through me. I felt his gaze pierce my soul.
By the time I finished the song, we had already run out of time. The gatekeepers were already gearing up to chase us away. The prisoners respected the jail’s rules, they stood up without any protest, said their goodbyes with their hands clenched into a Namaste and then walked towards their respective cells.
I had mixed feelings about having to leave. Perhaps, I felt like I had left something behind. Before we parted, my eyes met with the same pair of eyes again.
This time around I blushed. I could tell, they were still looking right at me, right through me. I felt
like they were trying to speak to me. Our time had come to an end. The prisoner could not cross over to my side; nor could I cross over to his. But my eyes for some reason refused to look anywhere but towards him. And his eyes looked at mine before the gate finally shut.
He was like any other political-prisoner that I had met that day, yet, he was a little different. He was younger than the rest, his hair was combed neatly to a side, and his physique looked particularly good for a prisoner. He had a brilliant pair of eyes that even when they pierced right through you left you with a sense of warmth. Perhaps, these were enough to attract a young romantic like myself.
I reminded myself that this was a jail. It was supposed to be harsh.
As I walked towards Jawalakhel from Nakkhu, my feet felt as heavy as my heart. I just couldn’t shove off the feeling. I just couldn’t overlook how that one pair of eyes had left me feeling. A little farther down the road there was a little cliff from where I could look back at the prison premises. Interestingly, the prisoners who we had just met were waving at us, so we stopped to wave back at them as well. While on it, my eyes searched for the young man with the beautiful pair of eyes. It’s funny how I could spot him from such a distance.
It was a bittersweet moment.
While I never discovered his name, or age, or where he came from, his beautiful eyes never really left me. His neatly combed hair, his face that gleamed of pride, his smile, everything tickled my memory every now and then. But I didn’t know what to do with those feelings. What could I have possibly done? Asked around or sift through the long lists of revolutionaries that had been imprisoned? It wouldn’t have been smart at a time where the state was watching closely. I didn’t want to get into any trouble.
As time passed by, I grew older and the state underwent many political changes. Many political prisoners were released. Some of the political-prisoners even turned into national political leaders and headlined daily newspapers. To be honest, there were times when I looked for his face in the photos, but always in vain. Then there were times when the same former prisoners passed me by on shiny four-wheelers, clad in labeda suruwal. I would remember how passionately I had sung to them, and at an emotional high, how they had appreciated with rounds of applause. Times had changed, they were no longer political prisoners, I was no more a young girl who romanticised the idea of a revolution. We didn’t exist in one another’s world any more. But in all these years, I never came across the same pair of eyes again.
Life has its way of throwing the unexpected at your face when you are least expecting it.
“Namaste Srijana ji, how are you doing?”
When I stopped to respond to a voice I had never heard, I saw a face that had been embossed in my memory for so long. It was him. While he had gotten older, his eyes still gleamed like they did the last time I saw him. They looked at me the same way they did before.
“I am good. Where are you these days?” I didn’t know what else to say.
“I have been busy in the districts, came to Kathmandu to run some errands. I was here for a week, I’m leaving tonight.” My heart skipped multiple beats when he continued, “I listen to you on radio every now and then. You have a beautiful voice, but I still haven’t heard anything like the song you sang when you visited us.”
I wish I could have said “I haven’t been able to forget your beautiful pair of eyes either.” But I didn’t.
It was another bittersweet moment. While I was here, longing for his one glance, or a clue that would lead me to him. There he was, safekeeping my name and voice in his memory too.
We had met after 10 years, and it was already time to say goodbye again. I had many questions, but I didn’t ask. He probably assumed I knew all about him, hence he didn’t share. I couldn’t even bring myself to asking him “which district?”
As he walked away, I felt like this time around it was me, who was entering the cell, and him who was going back into a free world. I longed to wave him goodbye, like I did last time. But he had already disappeared into the crowd.
What name was I to give this man? How was I to address him?
I couldn’t tell if I was happy or sad that he never longed for attention like his fellow comrades did. He never pined the centre-stage, and therefore, I never discovered who he was.
For me, he’d always be one pair of eyes.